Cropped version of Wisconsin: Open for business. Closed for people. by BlueRobot @ flickr

This week two interesting articles (to me) have been published and they have given me the push to return to commenting.

The articles.

The first was an Op-Ed that was recently published by a publication which is not exactly known for its do-gooder tendencies, the WSJ. It was written by a man I know of, but surprisingly have never run into in the very small expat community we have here in Hargeisa, Jonathon Starr. It was a rage against the machine of the aid industrial complex, something that I can generally get behind. There were parts of the article I agreed with and parts which I disagreed with. Jonathon attacks aid, which is his right – even though I would argue he is an outsider. I am unimpressed by some his more self-righteousness (I took no salary and expect my staff to do the same). He also makes the general broad-side attack of an industry that is very much fodder for an Op-Ed but lacks the detail and bite of a genuine argument which make me think and reflect. The basic gist of the article is that aid is fundamentally flawed because the lack of a profit motive therein causes inefficiencies in its delivery.

The second was a response to Jonathon’s piece by one of my favorite aid-bloggers, J, who maintains the Tales from the Hood blog (as well as the uber hilarious Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like). J does not have the nicest take on what Jonathon originally wrote. He attacks Jonathon as an outsider who never learned about aid (a meme that he often comes back to and one in which I only partially buy). But more to the point, he defends aid by saying that it should not be run as a business.

The thoughts.

I would enjoy a response from Jonathon to J.  But in the event (a phrase I am increasingly enjoying), I think that if a discussion were to develop they may be arguing past each other. I have a decent understanding of what Jonathon is doing here. It is a small town, and even smaller where the expats are concerned; as with all small towns, we’re in each other’s business to the point of dysfunction. What he is doing is not really what I would classify as aid work. That is to say, it isn’t NGO work as I would classify such. I would call it non-profit work. I make this distinction because Jonathon isn’t really struggling with the same things that most people I know who are EAWs struggle with. It is a subtle distinction, running a program focussed on opening schools and opening a school, but it is a distinction nonetheless. I should clarify this more but it is getting late and I’m lazy. Let us leave it at this: the scale, the tensions, the accounting, the partners – all of these are very different. That aside, Jonathon is clearly an intelligent man and whether he lacks or possesses epistemic authority as an insider to back his argument he originally crafted it and I would hope that he is willing to engage, defend, respond, and converse.

I think they both could agree on one point, and it is a point which Owen Barder and Duncan Green have made eloquently. Owen has made it numerous times, and here is one example. I cannot seem to find Duncan’s, but I remember he has written at least one very good piece on it. The upshot of their argument is that aid is fundamentally lacking feedback mechanisms.

This, it seems to me, is what Jonathon was originally trying to say. He rightly identifies one of the major problems with aid (its lack of feedback), but he misplaces the meat of his argument by equivocating (wrongly I think) a profit motive with feedback. Yes, in some businesses the bottom line is one of the feedback mechanisms to show whether there is uptake of the goods or services. But the key is not the presence or absence of a profit motive, the key is the presence of ANY feedback loop.

J rightly defends some of the current state of aid affairs by saying that indeed aid is not business and some efforts to make it more business-like would be misplaced. Such a reformation would in many instances leave out the real points of aid which is delivery of services to under-serviced sectors – sectors which the profit driven world has, for whatever reason, missed. That would be precisely contrary to what the aid world should be doing.

Learning from different sectors is one thing. When I was a Marine, I knew others who got the opportunity to go be seconded to a big company or to the stock exchange for a year or so. They brought back with them their lessons learned and they improved some things within the Corps. And that was fine. That is simply organizational learning. But the reformation which Jonathon proposes is quite a different thing. I fail to see where the presence of a profit motive would truly affect the delivery of NGO services. I see for-profit clinics and schools all around me during my drive to work every day. And I also see tons of kids unable to afford those schools therefore playing in the streets at school time and old ladies too sick to walk to the clinic and unable to afford the clinics anyway.

The profit motive is not what is wrong with aid. What is wrong with aid is that it has built into itself neither feedback loops nor accountability. I do not know of a single industry more isolated or insular than aid. There are those inside the echo chambers of twitter and blogs and they are each trying their best to improve the accountability and the feedback mechanisms, but the bottom line is that aid is an industry which is out of site and out of mind for everyone who is not an insider. And what incentive to any of the insiders have to change things other than simple altruism which is never a very powerful motivator? If aid fundamentally changed and if aid accomplished its mission many of the insiders would be out of jobs.

And so the cycles spin and people (like J) scream how aid needs professionals in order for it to be delivered correctly. While I do not quibble with what he is saying, I think that outsiders need to engage more. I appreciate the courage which Jonathon displayed in making his original argument. The more outsiders disrupt, the more insiders disrupt, the more improvements we will hopefully see.

There are lots of spaces to fill. There are spaces which aid (at least of the international, relatively big-money variety) deserves to be, where it can properly fit and prosper. There are spaces where locally oriented non-profits deserve to be, where they can properly fit and prosper. And there are spaces where businesses should be. If each continues to share lessons learned and if there continues to be a good conversation between the many camps and factions then hopefully what we are all searching for, a reasonable chance for those we wee around us, will come ever closer.

But let us not turn our comparisons of apples and oranges into app-ange juice because even though I have never drank that I’m not sure it would be delicious.

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